by Johnny Green
A famous orchestra leader turns author and sheds a new light on an old friend— Fred Astaire—gagster, ribber, screwball
TO a comparative few of us has been given the fun of knowing well the Astaire who makes the Astaire you know tick. Not a smart international citizen, a cosmopolite in top hat, white tie and tails, equally at home in London as in New York, in Hollywood as on the Continent, but a great big kid with a simple, boyish and totally delightful sense of humor —that’s the Fred I know!
When the two of us are working out a routine, a sort of running gag, a kind of continued rib goes on between us.
Whenever I have a particularly tough piano solo, Astaire stands by—sort of half-kidding-on-the-square attitude—waiting for me to hit that “clinker.” If I do hit it, the Astaire eyebrows zoom skyward—then he tells me no one would notice the mistake anyway. If I get through the solo without an error, his sigh of relief is like a small tornado.
When he rips into some difficult turn with his feet, I look straight up to the ceiling, hold my breath and wait. If he gets through it perfectly, we both laugh—but loud! If he misses it, we both laugh—but loud! Then Astaire drives himself crazy worrying about the step that he missed and doesn’t stop worrying until he does the dance again and does it correctly.
But there is a bond between Fred and me which is perhaps even greater than our musical one. We’re a couple of fullfledged cinches for a dialect.
During the days of the most hectic and turbulent preparation for the premiere of our Packard show, the phone would ring at some odd hour and I would be told Mr. Astaire wished to speak to me.
“John,” he would excitedly advise, “I’ve just thought of the most marvelous ‘Englishism’.” And off he would go into some bit of completely authentic London West End colloquialism that would panic us both. As a matter of fact the most important item that Fred had to relate to me of his last summer’s trip to England was his London tailor’s comment on discovering that the trousers of one of Fred’s new suits were too long:—
“We shall have to nip them up just a sensation, sir,” and as I recall, both Fred and I fell right down at this one and laughed for two solid days.
IT became virtually a contest between Fred and me to see which of us could get the jump on the other with a new bit of dialect. I well remember the no less childish enthusiasm with which Fred greeted the idea of doing “Christopher Columbus” on the Packard program. Yes, and don’t think that it was the tune or the thought of what I might perhaps do with the arrangement of it that intrigued him. He could hardly restrain his joy because I had suggested that he do part of it in Italian dialect. I want you to know that he was like a sophomore playing his first part in a high school dramatic club play about that bit of Italianized English. His reaction to the “I Love Louisa” number. which was done with a German twist, was just the same.
However, all during the piano rehearsals of one of these linguistic bits Fred would go completely turn-about, complain that he wasn’t a dialectician, virtually scream that his dialect was no good and then timorously ask me if it sounded all right. I would assure him that no one would believe that he was an American after hearing it, that the dialect was positively sensational and that he would probably never do another number in straight English again.
This mood would usually hold until the hour of the show when he would live for the dialect spots, sail into them with a will and not only get laughs from the audience but break himself up to pieces.
“Do you kill YOU!” I whispered to him during the program one night, just after he had panicked himself with a bit of Scotch brogue.
“Yeah! Isn’t it awful?” he hissed back through difficultly restrained hysterics.
I think I shall never forget the time when we did the “Piccolino” as the finale to the first half of our broadcast. I practiced it and practiced it. Came the rehearsals with the orchestra. Astaire listened, remarked, “Why don’t you give yourself something that you can play instead of all that? ”
“I’ll have to remember that next time you practically break your ankle,” I retorted.
For your information, I’d better tell you that in this arrangement of mine Fred had a vocal cue which was the key to the whole sense of the number following my piano solo. Well, we came to the show and everything was going splendidly. I sat down and literally cavorted through mv entire solo—not a mistake—just one of those perfect performances. Imagine my panic when I finished and looked up from the keyboard to find friend Fred up to his neck in gestures of wild acclaim, instead of at the microphone where he belonged. He was so busy congratulating me that he missed his own entrance, and there were a few bars of the emptiest sounding music ever heard on the air.
Fred tells this one on himself. One night, several weeks ago, on the Packard program, he began talking very quickly—in fact, too quickly—and a word that should have come out of his mouth “program” came out “prowang.”
The next day Fred received, from a close friend in the East, a telegram demanding briefly, “What’s a prowang?” On the following Tuesday’s program Fred told what he had done and read to his audience the facetious telegram he had received, instituting thereby a running fusillade of telegraphic comment which served our script in very good stead for some weeks.
Fred’s yen for writing songs is well known by now to all of his fans—and he has written a couple of very good ones, among them “I’m Building Up to an Awful Letdown” which you will remember was one of last year’s big hits.
In going over the numbers for a subsequent broadcast, Fred cracked out with this one— which shows him as he is—pleasantly ingenious. We came across a tune that was really on the pathetic side—distinctly a “bad-ie,” its origin firmly planted in the corn. In simple language it was N. S. G.
“Where did you find this?” queried Mr. A.
“Don’t be so disdainful,” I objected. “That’s one of the big hits of the day.”
“Well, hit or no hit, it’s terrible! Who wrote it?”—and before I could answer—”Gosh, that sounds like something I’d write!”
OVER and above all this, Fred’s a “nice —^fella.” He not only likes people, but he likes to like them. He knows folks by name. My band comprises twenty-one musicians, eight singers and three arrangers. I daresay he can call them all by name; and if you’ll pardon the bromide, he always has a good word for everybody despite the great weight of things on his mind. My chief arranger is one Conrad Salinger for whose work Fred has the greatest admiration. On the show the other evening there was a gag in which I asked Fred if he would like us to play something sweet. His answer was “yes,” and my boys proceeded to give forth an unearthly cacophony of spontaneous noises calculated to shatter the eardrum. “Oh,” ad libbed Astaire, “a Conrad Salinger arrangement?”
Last summer just near the end of shooting on “Swingtime,” Fred and I were in the throes of one of our most gruelling recording sessions. I had had a bite of lunch with him in his dressing room and was about to leave him to return to the recording studio in order to practice, when he asked me to walk over to the set with him.
Oh fateful request! I went, walked onto the set, and blandly talking to Fred, stepped out onto a blue scrim which, though it looked like a part of the floor, was in reality nothing but a piece of gauze between me and an awfully long drop. Came the ominous ripping sound and down I went only to be miraculously intercepted, some several feet lower, by a piece of canvas which really had no right to hold my weight.
There were screams and wild gestures made to catch me—and immediately stage hands and others rushed to pull me up out of my self-inflicted pit of oblivion. As my head came above the floor level, I was at once conscious of Astaire, the big goof, doubled up with hysterical laughter, his arm folded tight across his tummy, his right up to his eyes.
“What’s so funny, funny man?” I demanded. “I might have broken my back or even been killed.”
“I know,” he gargled, “but you should have seen the stupid look on your face while you were going through the air.” And he proceeded to execute an imitation of my aerial gyrations which was not only screamingly funny at the time, but at which we both howl to this day every time we think of it.
I first met Fred thirteen years ago when George Gershwin introduced us. Together with his sister, Adele, he was appearing in “Lady Be Good.” He was then, as now, a great and important artist—an importantly charming personality.
During all the intervening years between 1924 and 1934 when I started to work with Fred, I saw him intermittently. It was during these years that I was trying very diligently to get a foothold in show business, and among my few happy memories associated with the tough times that I had, are my recollections of the pleasantness of my meetings with Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Always interested, always encouraging, these two, without ever being soft-soapers.
FRED always knew of my deep longing to ‘ work with him. When I was a nineteen year old kid, I heard Fred say, “Listen, John, it’ll come yet. We’ll knock out something together.”
Three years later when he was in the New York stage play, “Gay Divorcee”—just before he left for Hollywood to make “Flying Down to Rio,” he told me the same thing.
And two years ago, the long-promised realization of that dream had its beginning when Fred and I started our phonograph recording with the score of “Top Hat.”
Today as I write this story, the end of a series of thirty-nine weekly hour broadcasts with Fred is in sight.
There is no phase of show business which is more enervating or more nerve-wracking, or which puts so stringently to the test one’s understanding and the basic pleasantness of one’s disposition as the grind of preparing and performing in a radio show of the type Fred and I have been doing.
There have been many tense moments during these thirty odd weeks—many of those temperamental bombs on which the fuse seemed set to go off in a matter of seconds, and there has never been a time when the Astaire sense of humor hasn’t functioned at just the right moment, when Fred hasn’t come through with some bit of gay characteristic nonsense that has saved the day.
After three and a half years in commercial radio, I can assure you that there can be no greater attribute to any artist’s perspective on himself than that he finishes a thirty-nine week series of difficult musical broadcasts with laughs, and is the good friend of all his associates. It is to his lively wit, his charming personality, that we owe our feeling of camaraderie. There are no hurt feelings, no tenseness amoung members of the troupe—I can vouch for that.
Fred has seen to it that we are all parting friends.
Such has been his accomplishment on this year’s Packard program.
In looking back over my thirteen years’ acquaintance and going-on three years’ working association with Astaire, I find three definite pegs on which to hang an index to his personality:—
One—Fred is a great artist!
Two—Fred is the essence of loyalty!
Three—FRED IS FUN!